May 27, 2016, 06:30AM

Why They Suck: Bob Dylan

“Voice of a generation” couldn’t write.

Rsz landscape 1464097810 bob dylan jerry schatzberg.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

This is the first installment in a series that attempts to blow holes through the blimp-like prestige of the overrated. These are people who are often put above criticism, for the very good reason that they cannot withstand it for a moment: pseudo-meaningful mediocrities absurdly considered to be emblems of our alleged collective identity, little gasbags inflated into big old gods due to the abject human desire to have something—anything, really—to worship.

I’m more or less opposed to folk singers, who in general are mediocre white bourgeois imitations of musicians with actual oomph. But I'd prefer almost any of them to Bob Dylan.

If people really regard “The Times They Are a Changin'” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” as songs that transformed the consciousness of a generation, I’m puzzled, because I think they're just woolly and boring, and badly-written.

But say they did. That could’ve had nothing to do with the profundity of the lyrics, the quality of the melodies, or the singing and playing. (It's sad what he did to the harmonica.) It had to do only with the response, or the moment, or the effectiveness of the promotional team. I think even as an emblem of that moment, there were 20 better choices.

Dylan’s often been celebrated as a great poet, which is laughable in the face of the actual garbled claptrap he produced. The usual Dylan lyric is an arbitrary and arrhythmic collage of pseudo-surrealist images. There are many here among us who think that life is but a joke, said the joker to the thief, as though he was Carl Jung after a lobotomy.

I hardly know where to start, for it is a vast oeuvre, empty as interstellar space. "I watch upon your scorpion/Who crawls across your circus floor," and so on. Just grabbing an example: “Mr. Tambourine Man” sucks, dude: all day every day, and it really doesn't mean anything about liberation, peace or equality, does it? Waitin’ only for my boot heels to be wanderin’ indeed.

Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'

And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're seein'
That he's chasing

Wait! I thought you were ready for to fade. Any time you're ready for to.

Suppose the answer to the question of how many roads a man must walk down before you can call him a man really were blowin' in the wind; and suppose further that the wind, when not sighing “Mary,” informed you in its windy way that a man must walk down 37.23 roads before you can call him a man. What then?

Finding the moments that are not just random pretentious nonsense is very difficult, and the idea that you'd treat Dylan as a literary figure refutes you—Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz—because it can't improve him. So stop writing 500-page books on the man and find something else. Patti Page and the Bee Gees were emblems of their eras too: that doesn't mean you should listen to their records all day.

You'd be better off having the very essence of your generation expressed by Robert Goulet.

  • Don't forget the old complaint by Dave Van Ronk -- perhaps smarting from D's appropriation of his distinctive "House of the Rising Sun" arrangement -- that the word "along" can't be applied to the word "watchtower."

    Responses to this comment
  • Probably a joke but still. Looks like there still quite a few Mr. Jones out there.

    Responses to this comment
  • no joke, though i hope it'd kinda funny. http://eyeofthestorm.blogs.com/eye_of_the_storm/2016/05/bob-dylan-sucks.html

    Responses to this comment
  • Ok, we've established that skin color is one criterion used here. Invalid of course, as it's like saying Eminem sucks because he's white. Dylan wasn't the bourgeois type either. He went to NYC with a guitar and succeeded, which is not real bourgeois. Mr. Tambourine Man sucked but both the original and the Byrds cover were huge hits. "It sucks dude" isn't really a critical thought worth sharing, dude. And then some cherry-picked lyrics and next a quick cut to comparisons to the Bee Gees and Patti Page. And finally a Robert Goulet reference? No, I can't take this too seriously. Who's next on your list, Miles Davis?

    Responses to this comment
  • Forget gun control. We need to keep idiots away from keyboards. So, Crispin Sartwell, can you give us an example of a good songwriter? Oh god, who wants to bet he's going to name Kanye West?

    Responses to this comment
  • i'll take almost anyone. i make elvis costello more or less the best lyricist of the rock era. skip kanye and listen to some immortal technique. eminem is amazing. how about harlan howard, maybe? or merle haggard. or willie dixon. if i had to pick one pop songwriter in the 20th century, i'd make it hank williams. or...etc etc. it's hard to know where to end.

    Responses to this comment
  • Well, you've inspired me. I know absolutely nothing about NASCAR racing, I'm going to pen a piece about how Dale Earnhardt senior never knew how to drive. That should get people talking about me, and make me famous! As my parting shot (you can have the last one, be my guest), it appears that a rather large number of musicians have found Dylan's work worthy of covering. They probably suck too, huh. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_artists_who_have_covered_Bob_Dylan_songs

    Responses to this comment
  • smokey robinson. i mean it seems absurd in this context to go to cole porter, or for god's sake duke ellington or the gershwins, but why not? jagger/richards were very strong at their best. i don't think dylan is on the same planet as any of these people in any respect.

    Responses to this comment
  • I get it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Your comment about folksingers reminded me of the John Goodman character in Inside Llewyn Davis- a grain of truth I suppose. Your criticism of Dylan's lyrics goes back to the battles between Columbia Prof Lionel Trilling and his student Ginsburg, who's poetry he detested for not being in the "classic" tradition. I'm on the side of EE Cummings "I"d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach 10,000 Stars Not to Dance.

    Responses to this comment
  • And you, Mr. Schmartwell, are a GREAT writer. "Bob Dylan sucks because... dude, he sucks." Riveting thesis. Deft analysis. Deathless prose. Years from now, people will be talking about how Mr. Schmartwell changed everything. Voice of a generation. Greatest living American poet. No, wait... I don't know, must be some reason these things have been said by so many for so long. Naaaaaaah... just a lot of hype...

    Responses to this comment
  • I've always heard that those who can, do. Those who can't, critique. ;-)

    Responses to this comment
  • in a mode closer to dylan, i'd mention john prine, lucinda williams, and fred eaglesmith as people who write so, so much better. also let me say that whether i am an idiot or a bad writer or not is irrelevant to whether dylan sucks, isn't it?

    Responses to this comment
  • So is this website primarily a forum for teenagers now?

    Responses to this comment
  • Hahahahaha Immortal Technique. Guy had one decent mixtape over ten years ago. Your little three hundred word attempt to excoriate is one of the worst failures I have ever seen. And look, I, too, gave no real critiques! Although I did manage to avoid setting up a straw man. Holy shit the hypothetical question you pose about blowin' in the wind? And you call Bob Dylan pretentious? An unfunny, not at all scathing attempt to show why someone sucks fails miserably.

    Responses to this comment
  • Pikkie has it exactly right. We've all hear it said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." And so by all means, if you really think Dylan sucks, let's hear your critique! Lay out your argument, define your terms, and take the time you need to do the topic justice. But we won't hold our breath. Be honest: You weren't really trying to persuade anyone with this, were you?

    Responses to this comment
  • Bob Dylan getting the Nobel for literature is like when Henry Kissinger got the Peace prize. Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrretch.

    Responses to this comment
  • All Dylan over the dam at this late date. My memories are hopelessly infected for life with his music and lyrics, a sentimental malaria. Critque that? Impossible. While Zimmerman lives, I say he passed the first time Darius Rucker opened his mouth and sang "Put on a little Dylan."

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment